A Conversation With 23andMe Researcher Chao Tian

This interview is part of an occasional series of profiles introducing you to the people behind 23andMe’s compelling research. Chao Tian is a statistical geneticist, who came to 23andMe after Chao's Photostudying Genetics and Statistics at UC Davis and working for two other genetics startups in the Bay Area. At 23andMe, Chao studies the genetic factors that affect drug response, and she is also working on improving our genome-wide association studies.

“Genetics is important, and we need more data to make it useful.”

Why are you excited about genetics?
I’ve always thought genetics was a very interesting field, especially after the human genome sequence was completed. Being able to decode yourself is very cool, and if you can understand yourself at a molecular level, it will show us more about what humans are made of.

Tell us about one of your interesting research findings.
One of the most interesting things we’ve been looking at is medical records. We are comparing medical record data with 23andMe surveys, and so far have found the correspondence to be very high. People who fill out 23andMe surveys tend to provide very accurate responses, and that information corresponds highly enough to medical records that it could be statistically relevant for future studies.

Chao Tian, PhD Statistical Geneticist
Education:BA Wuhan University, China
PhD, Statistical Genetics, UC Davis
Fun Fact:I write classical Chinese poetry. If I hadn’t chosen science, I would’ve pursued a literature degree.

Last year I also presented a paper at ASHG called, “GWAS Identifies Classical HLA Alleles Associated with Susceptibility to Infectious Diseases.” For that research, we studied 23 infectious diseases like chickenpox, shingles, strep throat and mumps etc. to find associated proteins and alleles. The results of the study could impact future vaccine design and disease preventions.

What interesting thing have you learned about yourself from being tested?
I’ve learned that we need more data. As an Asian person, I received different results from the 23andMe test than most of our European customers. As we get more data from our customers, we’ll be able to improve our results to reflect the diverse culture here in the US. I can just imagine the sheer value of having millions of phenotypes — especially across a diverse range of ethnicities. Once we have bigger sample sizes, we’ll be able to repeat a lot of the studies traditionally done on Europeans for people with diverse backgrounds.

Tell us about a recent breakthrough in genetics research that you think will have a big impact.
Angelina Jolie’s decision to undergo a double mastectomy, due to her genetic risk of breast cancer and family history of the disease, brought a lot of attention to genetics. Currently available BRCA tests can now easily test for the rare variant mutations in the breast cancer gene with incredible accuracy. In the future we’ll be able to bring that level of accuracy into testing for other diseases, and that’s very important.

What’s one thing the average person should know about genetics?
Genetics is important. It can determine if you’re at high risk for certain conditions and enable you to take an action to prevent that.